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40-Man Team Preparing for Saturday’s Classic ALABAMA ALL-STARS OPEN PRACTICE IN MISSISSIPPI WITH TWO OUTSTANDING WORKOUTS TUESDAY

    HATTIESBURG (MS) – Alabama’s All-Star football team made great strides from the morning and afternoon practices, said Alabama All-Star head coach Steve Smith of Piedmont Tuesday.
    “The players have had a great attitude, have not just been on time but are getting where they need to be early,” Smith said. “We struggled some with our passing game in the morning workout (at Oak Grove High School in Hattiesburg) but we began to get our timing down a whole lot better in the afternoon practice. That was not unexpected, though. The quarterbacks and receivers had not worked together before and they will continue to improve as the week goes on.”
    The players and coaches reported Monday with both 40-man squads comprised of current seniors conducting two workouts Tuesday. That same schedule will be in place for Wednesday as the teams prepare for Saturday’s 31st Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game set for a noon kickoff at Carlisle Faulkner Field/D.D. Roberts Stadium on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi.
    The Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game series, a partnership between the AHSAA and AHSADCA and the Mississippi Association of Coaches (MAC), is making its second appearance in Mississippi after playing the first 28 games in Alabama beginning in 1988. The game was held at Mobile’s Ladd-Peebles Stadium from 1988-2010 and moved to Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl in 2011. The MAC hosted the 2015 game at Hattiesburg with Mississippi snapping a seven-game Alabama win streak with a 28-21 win. Last year’s game, a 25-14 win by Alabama, was played at Cramton Bowl and improved Alabama’s record to 22-8 in the series.
    Smith said he has been impressed with all the Alabama all-stars. One player, Robert E. Lee’s 6-foot-4, 205-pound strong safety Kevontae Ruggs, caught all the coaches’ attention. “He is a big, strong kid who appears to only know one speed,” said Smith. Ruggs’ older brother Henry played in last year’s game – returning the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. The return was the longest in the Classic’s history. Henry is now a freshman at the University of Alabama.
   Smith also mentioned running back Asa Martin of Austin, H-back Clay Stearns of Mountain Brook, receivers CarDamien Daniels of Homewood, Shedrick Jackson of Hoover and Nathaniel Watson of Maplesville, Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa linebacker Jacquez Jones, and Park Crossing offensive lineman Tank Jenkins.  He also had high praise for place-kicker and punter Evan McPherson of Fort Payne.
    “I realized that his 60-yard field goal this past season was the longest in AHSAA history from a snap and hold,” Smith said. “But what I didn’t know was that he kicked it without a tee – right off the ground even though kicking off a tee is allowed in high school. He can really boom his kicks.”
    Smith led Piedmont to two straight Class 3A football championships in 2015 and 2016 but was beaten in the semifinals this season when Region 5 rival Randolph County scored the winning touchdown with 1.6 seconds remaining to advance to the Super 7 finals at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
    “This all-star game is good therapy for me,” he said. “I don’t know if I could have jumped back into it the following Monday after that loss. It was tough for my players and for me, but I was proud of our kids and proud of Randolph County. They represented our region well. When you coach this game long enough, you find yourself on both sides of a game like that. It has been a great learning experience for me and my players.
    “What we want these kids to understand in this game is that while we want to win, we need to do all we can to be prepared and then give our very best effort. If we do that, then we will be satisfied. They are doing all we ask of them.”

SUPER 7 CLASS 6A STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS Pinson Valley 31, Wetumpka 10

Pinson Valley 31, Wetumpka 10
 
    
TUSCALOOSA – Junior quarterback Bo Nix passed for one touchdown and rushed for two others as Pinson Valley (15-0) battled from a 10-7 halftime deficit to beat Wetumpka 31-10 in the 2017 Super 7 Class 6A State football championship game at Bryant-Denny Stadium.  The 6A game closed out the three-day championship extravaganza attended by 35,921 for the week.  Final day attendance was 11,659.
    The championship was the first football title in Pinson Valley history and the perfect 15-0 season was also a first – all coming in Coach Pat Nix’s first season as head coach.
     Wetumpka (13-2), coached by Tim Perry, marched 58 yards on nine plays on the game’s opening drive to take a 3-0 lead on Robert Stewart’s 24-yard field goal.  Pinson Valley responded with a 10-play, 67-yard march that culminated with Khymel Chaverst’s 1-yard touchdown run. Aiden Campbell’s extra-point kick gave Pinson a 7-3 lead.
     Wetumpka got the first big break of the game when linebacker Colton Adams intercepted a pass at the Pinson 9-yard line early in the second quarter. Two plays later senior running back Kovosiey Smoke scored from the 4-yard line and Wetumpka took the lead back 10-7. That’s how it stood at the half – thanks in part to the punting of Wetumpka quarterback J.D. Martin, who had two kicks downed inside the Pinson Valley 5-yard line.
    The second half belonged to Pinson Valley, however. Bo Nix, son of the head coach, earned 6A Game MVP honors completing 13-of-25 passes for 223 yards and rushed nine times for 22 yards – with touchdown runs covering 1 and 13 yards in the Indians’ 24-point second half.  Aiden Campbell’s 33-yard field goal midway through the third period tied the game at 10-10. Campbell followed with an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff – recovering it himself at the Wetumpka 49-yard line – a momentum changer that Wetumpka never recovered from.
    Pinson marched quickly to the go-ahead touchdown with Nix sneaking in from the 1 with 2:35 left in the quarter to give Coach Nix’s team a 17-10 lead. Bo Nix connected with LiAllen Dailey for a 23-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 24-10 and Nix added his final TD run with 4:53 to play to close out the scoring.
    Pinson Valley finished with 151 yards rushing and 223 passing for 374 total yards. Wetumpka had 114 yards rushing, 52 passing and 166 total yards. The Pinson defense limited Wetumpka to only six total yards in the second half.
    Dilan Henderson led Pinson with 72 rushing yards on 10 carries and Chaverst added 57 on 18 attempts. Dailey had five catches for 93 yards, Demarion Holloman caught had four receptions for 86 yards and Henderson had two for 37.  In addition to his quarterbacking duties, Nix averaged 41.5 yards on two punts.
    Wetumpka, playing in the state finals for the first time in the school’s 117-year football history, was led by Smoke’s 66 rushing yards on 16 carries. Junior quarterback J.D. Martin had 30 yards on 14 carries and was 8-of-13 passing for 52 yards. Smoke also had two receptions for 31 yards and Keedrick Adams had four for 13 yards. Martin also punted five times for a 38.4-yard average with three kicks downed inside the Pinson 10-yard line. The 13 wins set a school record for Perry’s Indians  as well as the 613 points scored.
    Colton Adams had nine tackles and an interception to anchor Wetumpka’s defensive effort. Nicholas Turner and David Adams also had eight tackles each. Turner also had an interception.
    Jaylun Gulley and Eric Rogers had nine tackles each for Pinson Valley. Demarco Harris had seven tackles and Desmond Scott had six tackles and 1 ½ sacks – accounting for 14 yards in losses.  Ga’Quincey McKinstry made an interception.

SUPER 7 CLASS 2A STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS Lanett 33, Leroy 15

Lanett 33, Leroy 15
 
    
TUSCALOOSA – Lanett High School overcame a 15-0 first-quarter deficit with 33 unanswered points Friday afternoon to beat Leroy 33-15 in the 2017 Super 7 Class 2A State football championship game  at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The championship was the first football title in school history and concluded a 15-0 season for Coach Christopher Story’s team – best in school history. The Panthers’ boys’ basketball team won the Class 2A state title the last two seasons.
      Leroy (12-3), coach by Jason Massey,  jumped out to a quick 15-0 lead  with two rushing touchdowns freshman running back Kelston Fikes by  in the first quarter covering 3 and 7 yards. The Bears marched 56 yards on 11 time-consuming plays on the first TD march and 52 yards on seven plays on the next one.  Leroy ‘s Daniel Waddill caught a pass from Jeb Rice for a two-point conversion after Fikes’ first TD and Trey Sullivan kicked the extra point after the second one.
    Lanett (15-0) cut the lead to 15-7 with four seconds left in the period when Terrion Truitt scooted 10 yards for the Panthers’ first touchdown. Rovilan Castro added the extra point.  Lanett tied the game with 2:34 left in the half when Ja’Won Howell scored on a dazzling 34-yard run. Truitt then scored on the two-point conversion to tie the game at 15-15 at intermission.
    The Panthers took the lead for good 21-15 with 3:27 remaining in the third period when quarterback Kristian Story, who was shaken up in the second quarter, returned to the game to direct an eight-play, 67-yard march that finished with his 10-yard pass to Braylon Harrington. Lanett pulled away in the fourth quarter with Truitt scoring on a 23 run with 4:21 left and 6-foot-7 senior receiver Anquaevious Pollard hauling in a 19-yard pass from Story for the final TD 85 seconds later.
    Story’s Panthers finished with 17 first downs, 187 yards rushing and 129 passing for 316 total yards. Lanett had 93 yards rushing and 44 passing for 137 total yards.
    Truitt finished with 90 yards rushing on 13 carries and caught one pass for 16 yards to earn MVP honors. Story rushed for 70 yards on 13 carries and was 11-of-19 passing for 129 yards and two TDs. Pollard had five catches for 66 yards.
    Freshman running back Kelston Fikes had a game-high 107 yards rushing on 27 carries and both Bears touchdowns. Leroy quarterback Nathan Taylor was 9-of-16 passing for 44 yards. Prinis Snow had two receptions for 16 yards and Daniel Waddill had one for 25 yards.
    Lanett’s Zion Lynch led the Panthers’ defense with 10 tackles.  Ja’Won Howell and Dterron Glaze also had eight each. Tifton Dobbs also had an interception. Leroy’s Dristin Weaver had 10 tackles and Brady Smith had nine to lead the Bears.
    The 2017 Super 7 State Championships conclude tonight with Wetumpka (13-1) facing Pinson Valley (14-0) in the 6A finals at 7 p.m. The game is being televised live by Raycom Media over its Raycom/AHSAA Network of affiliates and D-2 stations with WSFA TV 12 in Montgomery showing the contest on its main channel. The game is also being live video-streamed over the NFHS Network’s subscriber-based network and on You Tube. For more TV information, go to www.pathtotheplayoffs.com and click on “Where to Watch.”
    The AHSAA Radio Network is also broadcasting the final across the state. The link is available at www.ahsaa.com.

SUPER 7 CLASS 4A STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS UMS-Wright 21, Fayette County 7

UMS-Wright 21, Fayette County 7
 
    
TUSCALOOSA – UMS-Wright posted three touchdowns in the first half as the Bulldogs beat Fayette County 21-7 to claim the AHSAA Super 7 Class 4A state football championship at Bryant-Denny Stadium Friday.
     Sophomore running back Symon Smith had 144 of his 200 yards in the first half, scoring on touchdown runs of 14 and 55 yards to spark the Bulldogs to a 21-0 lead by intermission. Will Chapman scored the other first-half TD on a 2-yard run. UMS-Wright’s defense also had its big moments too – stopping the Tigers on four downs inside the 10-yard line in the final minute of the second quarter.
    The championship was the sixth for UMS-Wright (13-2) during Coach Terry Curtis’ tenure and the seventh in school history.
         Fayette County (12-3) had the ball for just seven plays in the first quarter. The Tigers of Coach Lance Tucker opened the third period with a 10-play, 55-yard drive culminated with Chance Stevenson’s 4-yard run for the touchdown to cut the lead to 21-7. Stevenson, the Tigers’ quarterback, finished with 78 yards rushing on 21 carries and was 17-of-38 passing for 165 yards. Senior wide receiver Darius Nalls caught 11 passes for 108 yards. He finished his season with 78 receptions for 1,659 yards and 19 touchdowns.
    Will Chapman was 2-of-7 passing for seven yards for the Bulldogs.
     Fayette out-gained UMS-Wright 250 total yards to 229. The Bulldogs made four interceptions, however, with Trez Dixon swiping two for 50 yards in return yardage. Russ Myers and Conrad Inge had the other picks.  Dixon finished with eight tackles and Richard Brinson had six.  Leading the Tigers’ defense was Jamarious Jackson with eight tackles, Joe Koster, Colton Cooper and Tristan Nichols with seven each.
    The 2017 Super 7 State Championships continue today with two remaining finals: Lanett (14-0) versus Leroy (12-2) in the 2A championship at 3 p.m., and Wetumpka (13-1) facing Pinson Valley (14-0) in the 6A finals at 7 p.m.
     All games are being televised live by Raycom Media over its Raycom/AHSAA Network of affiliates and D-2 stations. The games are also being live video-streamed over the NFHS Network’s subscriber-based network and on You Tube. For more TV information, go to www.pathtotheplayoffs.com and click on “Where to Watch.”
    The AHSAA Radio Network is also broadcasting all games across the state. The link is available at www.ahsaa.com.

SUPER 7 CLASS 5A STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS St. Paul’s Episcopal 17, Briarwood Christian 14

St. Paul’s Episcopal 17, Briarwood Christian 14
 
    
TUSCALOOSA –  St. Paul’s Episcopal receiver Oliver Willman snagged a 6-yard pass from quarterback Swift Lyle on fourth-and-goal with 1:54 left in the fourth quarter to give the Saints (14-1) a 17-14 victory over previously unbeaten Briarwood Christian (14-1) in the Super 7 Class 5A state football championship game Thursday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium here.
    The Willman caught another 6-yard pass one play earlier with Coach Steve Mask’s Saints facing a third-and-10 from the Lions’ 12-yard line. The two pass receptions highlighted a last-ditch 10-play, 78-yard drive that delivered St. Paul’s its third state championship in the last four years and fourth state title overall.
    St. Paul’s scored first with a 20-yard field goal by Wilson Beaverstock in the first quarter to take a 3-0 lead. Hudson Hartsfield, who finished with five catches for 78 yards, put Coach Fred Yancey’s Lions on top 7-3 with a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Michael Hiers midway through the second quarter. Hiers and Hartsfield hooked up again at 1:07 left in the third period on a 12-yard touchdown connection as the Lions built a 14-3 lead.
    The Saints answered that score quickly when Jarrett Eaton hauled in a 57-yard touchdown pass from Lyle just 51 seconds later. The extra-point try failed, however, and Briarwood clinged to a 14-9 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
    Briarwood dominated most of the fourth quarter driving to the St. Paul’s 22-yard line with just over four minutes to play. Facing a fourth-and-3, the Lions faked a field-goal try but the pass fell incomplete.
    The Saints took then began their final march of the season – driving to the winning touchdown in big part thanks to a 56-yard pass from Lyle to Jalyn Armour-Davis on fourth-and-14 to the Lions 10-yard line with time running out.
     Lyle finished 14-of-22 for 236 yards and two touchdowns to earn MVP honors for the Saints.  He also rushed for 33 yards on four carries. Eaton had three catches for 74 yards, Armour-Davis had three catches for 55 yards and Willman had three for 29 yards. Jordan Ingram rushed for 44 yards on 16 carries and had two receptions for another 49 yards.
     Hiers finished 8-of-18 for Briarwood for 113 yard passing. Luke Prewett had nine rush attempts for 52 yards and J.R. Tran-Reno had 33 yards on four tries.
     Daniel Beard had 12 tackles and Gordon Mathers had 10 to pace the St. Paul’s defense. Gabriel Russell had nine stops and Mark Hand had seven for Briarwood.
    The 2017 Super 7 State Championships conclude Friday with three games: UMS-Wright (12-2) meeting Fayette County (12-2) at 11 a.m., in the 4A championship, Lanett (14-0) versus Leroy (12-2) in the 2A finals at 3 p.m., and Wetumpka (13-1) facing Pinson Valley (14-0) in the 6A finals at 7 p.m. All games are being televised live by Raycom Media over its Raycom/AHSAA Network of affiliates and D-2 stations. The games are also being live video-streamed over the NFHS Network’s subscriber-based network and on You Tube. For more TV information, go to www.pathtotheplayoffs.com and click on “Where to Watch.”
    The AHSAA Radio Network is also broadcasting all games across the state. The link is available at www.ahsaa.com.


SUPER 7 CLASS 1A STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS Sweet Water 20, Pickens County 6

Sweet Water 20, Pickens County 6
 
    
TUSCALOOSA – Sweet Water High School senior Shamar Lewis scooped up  a fumble and raced 64 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter Thursday to seal the Bulldogs’ 20-6 victory over Pickens County in the AHSAA Super 7 Class 1A state football finals at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
    Lewis, had four tackles including one for a six-yard loss on defense, made an interception in the final minute and also rushed for a 95 yards on 16 carries to earn MVP honors for Coach Pat Thompson’s Bulldogs.
     Sweet Water (13-1) won its 10th state championship overall and its first since 2010. Thompson served as assistant coach on two state championship teams and now has his first as the head coach.
  Pickens County (12-3), coached by James Thompson, took the early lead 3-0 with 5:40 left in the second quarter when Jermaine Hill booted a 26-yard field goal to cap a 10-play, 66-yard march. Sweet Water drove 60 yards on 10 plays on the ensuing drive with Jacory Brown scoring on a 2-yard run at the two-minute mark of the period and Devonte Blanks kicked the extra point to give the Bulldogs a 7-3 lead at intermission.
     The Bulldogs took the opening drive of the third quarter and drove 68 yards in 11 plays to extend the lead to 14-3 when Jaylon Williamson scored on a 3-yard run. The Tornadoes cut the lead to 14-6 three minutes later when Hill kicked his second field goal, a 28-yarder. His two field goals set a new Super 7 Class 1A state record.  Lewis took over in the fourth quarter, however. Pickens County quarterback Aljaron Edwards was forced out of the pocket by Jacory Brown midway through the fourth quarter and lost control of the ball as he was thrown to the turf. Lewis was there to pick it up and raced to the end zone for the clinching score.
     Sweet Water totaled 283 yards rushing on 56 carries and completed one pass for 50 yards – a grab by Trenton Sams from quarterback Jonah Lewis that came on a third-and-27 play from the Bulldogs 25 that kept the third-quarter scoring drive alive. Pickens County passed for 233 yards but netted only 22 rushing.
    Brown had a game-high 103 yards rushing on 25 carries for the Bulldogs, and Williamson had 95 on 12 rush attempts.   
    Edwards was 17-of-26 passing for the Tornadoes for 174 yards and Clifford Morton was 3-of-5 for 59 yards.  Elliott Petty had nine catches for 109 yards and Malik Betts had six for 70 yards.
    Jah’Dairius McIntosh led the Sweet Water defense with 10 tackles and one sack. Smith had seven tackles plus and interception and Willie Lewis had six.   Jah-Marien Latham and Rikishi Cohen had 10 tackles each for Pickens County.
    The Super 7 State Championships continue tonight with the Class 5A championship game between St. Paul’s Episcopal (13-1) and Briarwood Christian (14-0) at 7 p.m. All games are being televised live by Raycom Media over its Raycom/AHSAA Network of affiliates and D-2 stations. The games are also being live video-streamed over the NFHS Network’s subscriber-based network and on You Tube. For more TV information, go to www.pathtotheplayoffs.com and click on “Where to Watch.”
   The Super 7 closes out Friday with three games: UMS-Wright (12-2) meeting Fayette County (12-2) at 11 a.m., in the 4A championship, Lanett (14-0) versus Leroy (12-2) in the 2A finals at 3 p.m., and Wetumpka (13-1) facing Pinson Valley (14-0) in the 6A finals at 7 p.m.
    The AHSAA Radio Network is also broadcasting all games across the state. The link is available at www.ahsaa.com.

SUPER 7 CLASS 3A STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS Hillcrest-Evergreen 26, Randolph County 14

    TUSCALOOSA -- Hillcrest-Evergreen  blanked Randolph County in the second half to capture a 26-16 come-from-behind victory in the AHSAA 2017 Super 7 Class 3A state championship game Thursday at the University of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium.
   The state title was the first in Hillcrest football history.
   Randolph County (13-2), coached by Pat Prestridge,  marched 67 yards on 11 plays to take the lead in the first quarter when Aaron Knight scored on a 5-yard run.  Jordan Heard booted the extra point and the Tigers led 7-0. Hillcrest (14-1) scored six plays later on a 7-yard pass from junior quarterback Ryan Nettles to Kobe Bradley. A try for two points failed and the Jaguars trailed 7-6. The Tigers tacked on a 49-yard TD pass from Brody Wortham to Tre’ Terrell in the second quarter and Hillcrest responded with a 66-yard TD connection from Nettles to Brandon Rudolph, but the Jags still trailed at the half 14-13.
    Nettles, who completed 15-of-24 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns, directed two more scoring drives in the second half with running back Andray  Pope scoring on a 2-yard run and a dazzling 71-yard run, and the Hillcrest defense did the rest.
    Smith’s Jaguars finished with 16 first downs, 154 yards rushing and 226 passing for 380 yards. Randolph County had 100 yards rushing and 187 passing for 287 yards. Pope finished with a game-high 108 yards rushing on 12 carries and Tyson Nicholson added 43 on 11 carries for Hillcrest. Nettles connected with Joshua Jackson five times for 49 yards and Bradley had four catches for 59 yards. Rudolph also finished with three receptions for 91 yards.
    Wortham was 6-of-16 passing for 187 yards for the Tigers. Knight had 100 yards rushing on 22 carries and caught three passes for 86 yards. Trenton Lane added 27 rushing yards on seven carries.
    Cortez Betts led the Hillcrest defense with nine tackles. Desmond Mitchell added eight stops and Cameron Riley had seven, including two sacks for 28 yards in losses. Riley also had an interception.
    Pacing the Tigers’ defense was E.J. Clark with 10 tackles Andrew Prestridge and Jai Wright, eight each, and Richard Bledsoe with six. Bledsoe also had a sack resulting in a 10-yard loss.
    The Super 7 State Championships continue today with Sweet Water (12-1) facing Pickens County (12-2) in the Class 1A finals at Bryant-Denny Stadium at 3 p.m., and the Class 5A championship game between St. Paul’s Episcopal (13-1) and Briarwood Christian (14-0) at 7 p.m. All games are being televised live by Raycom Media over its Raycom/AHSAA Network of affiliates and D-2 stations. The games are also being live video-streamed over the NFHS Network’s subscriber-based network and on You Tube. For more TV information, go to www.pathtotheplayoffs.com and click on “Where to Watch.”
   The Super 7 closes out Friday with three games: UMS-Wright (12-2) meeting Fayette County (12-2) at 11 a.m., in the 4A championship, Lanett (14-0) versus Leroy (12-2) in the 2A finals at 3 p.m., and Wetumpka (13-1) facing Pinson Valley (14-0) in the 6A finals at 7 p.m.

A search for 'Alabama values' in the heart of the state

There is no easy way into the heart of Alabama.

It's not near Birmingham. Not even close. It's not near Huntsville, or Mobile, or Montgomery or even Nick Saban's Tuscaloosa. It's not near anything, really, except for an old cotton gin, and a few paper mills.

The heart of Alabama is Sweet Water High School, and it's down a small country road in Marengo County, and then an even smaller country road, and then a piece of road so small and so familiar to the people who travel it, they know exactly where the lazy dogs will be resting every day as they drive by. Down that road, in southwest Alabama, is the heart of this state, and you can't begin to understand it unless you go there.

When it comes to finding Sweet Water, or a place like it, when it comes to searching for the heart of Alabama, the Internet is a useless tool. It will only get you more lost if you try to use it. Indeed, Sweet Water is so small it's not on Google Maps.

But it's there, just like it has always been -- town population: 246.

There is a blinking yellow light in Sweet Water, but the logging trucks don't slow down for it. Small clouds of ditch cotton rise up and dance down main street as they drive past. The local cotton gin has been in operation since 1840. This has been a big year for Alabama cotton, so they might be ginning in Sweet Water until February.

A lot of people have been questioning the heart of Alabama these days, and wondering what it is, and knowing what it is not, so I went for a visit. If there are such things as "Alabama values," Sweet Water High School is where they teach them.

"If this country ran like this school does, we wouldn't have any problems," said Sweet Water principal Phyllis Mabowitz. "We are a picture of our community, and the population here in this part of the state."

I spoke with teachers, coaches and students, the librarian and the mayor, the guys working the cotton gin and the woman who cooks the butterbeans and collard greens at the local diner. Sweet Water is timber country, and 11 tiny communities feed the school. Anyone in the county can attend, but Sweet Water also takes people from outside Marengo County if there's room.

On the eve of Sweet Water's proudest moment in years -- an appearance in the Class 1A state football championship game on Thursday -- I went and spent the day. It is a special place, and easy to love. The people of Sweet Water and Marengo County are proud of their K-12 school, which excels in both academics and athletics. They call it the "treasure in the forest." It truly is.

Sweet Water might be the best little school in Alabama.

"This is a family," said librarian Patricia Jones. "You don't meet a stranger when you come here. The people are just down home."

Jones says she has the best job in the school. She gets to "roll around on the ground" and read to kindergarteners in the morning, and then helps seniors with their literature and research papers in the afternoon.

"Because we are such a small school, we get to influence the kids all the way from preschool to when they graduate from high school," Jones said. "And the big kids get to influence the little kids."

On Tuesday, the library was transformed into a banquet hall for Sweet Water's annual senior luncheon. Jones bragged that 11 of her upperclassmen scored above a 30 on the ACT. For a school with a senior class of 42 in rural Alabama, that's a remarkable number. The next day, a researcher from the University of Missouri visited the school for an ongoing project, and told the Mabowitz, the principal, "I need to come here more often. I sometimes lose hope that there are places still like this in education."

Sweet Water is one of 12 remaining K-12 schools in the state. It is 61 percent white and 37 percent black. Almost 70 percent of those who attend receive free or reduced lunches. Some of the bus routes are over 90-minutes long. Much like the rest of Alabama, Sweet Water is a place shaped by its past, but looking to the future.

"Our parents don't have lots of resources, but the resource they have is work ethic," Mabowitz said. "They expect that from their children, and we see it in our classrooms, and we see it on our playing fields."

In the heart of Alabama, there's a thing people value almost more than a nurturing classroom environment for their children. That thing is high school football. At Sweet Water, they play the game very well. Sweet Water has won eight state championships (1978, 1979, 1982, 1986, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010), and they'll try to make it nine at 3 p.m. on Thursday against Pickens County.

To reach the AHSAA's Super 7 at Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium, Sweet Water had to come from behind against defending state champion Maplesville, and last week's semifinal opponent, Wadley. The bus ride to Wadley took almost four hours, according to Sweet Water's star player, Shamar Lewis.

Lewis plays middle linebacker and running back for Sweet Water. Last week, he returned a fumble for a touchdown and assisted on a game-winning goal-line stand.

Before the football team left for Tuscaloosa and the state championship game, Lewis and his teammates walked through their school's hallway and high-fived the younger students. In Sweet Water's main building, the antique hardwood floors are polished to a dull shine from decades of lacquer and varnish. They creak and moan underfoot.

"We got caring people down here," Shamar said. "They all want to see you do good, and they're tough on you with your work because they want to see you do the best that you can. It's just good people to be around."

Sweet Water's football coach, Pat Thompson, grew up in the area. His father worked in the timber industry, but he was called to coaching. Like most everyone in Sweet Water, Thompson hunts and fishes and goes to church for fun. He was nice enough to entertain this reporter's questions before his team's big game. In the heart of Alabama, they are nothing if not accommodating.

What makes Sweet Water so special?

"The people," he said.

His inspirational motto for this year's team borrows a verse from the Bible, Hebrews 12:1. Finish strong, reads a quote on Thompson's cluttered wall ... "and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."

The bible verse is tacked above another quote he values as a leader of young people. It's from the famous American psychiatrist, Karl Menninger: "What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches."

Joseph Goodman is a columnist for Alabama Media Group. He's on Twitter @JoeGoodmaJr.



SUPER 7 CLASS 7A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP Hoover 48, McGill-Toolen Catholic 20

Hoover 48, McGill-Toolen Catholic 20
TUSCALOOSA – Hoover High School posted 27 points in the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium Wednesday night en route  to a 48-20 victory McGill-Toolen Catholic (13-1) to claim the AHSAA Class 7A state championship for the third time in four seasons.
    Senior quarterback Jalen Parker completed 11-of-15 passes for 265 yards and four touchdowns to earn MVP honors as the Bucs (11-3) added state championship No. 13 to the Hoover trophy case. Coach Josh Niblett, who has coached the last six, said this year’s squad completed a feat in style, beating three straight undefeated teams in the playoffs to capture the 2017 crown.
Hoover took the lead midway through the first quarter when junior Larry McCammon scored on a 16-yard run. Barrett Pickering kicked the first of six extra points for a 7-0 lead. Coach Earnest Hill’s Yellow Jackets made it 7-3 with 31 seconds left in the quarter on Chase Mahler’s 28-yard field goal.
    Parker and star receivers Shedrick Jackson and George Pickens took over in the second quarter, however. Pickens hauled in a 7-yard pass from Parker early in the second period to put Hoover up 14-3. Mahler added his second field goal, a 24-yarder, with 4:24 remaining in the second period to close the gap to 14-6.
    The Bucs dominated the final four minutes of the half with Jackson hauling in TD passes of 70 and 16 yards and Pickens grabbing a 54-yard scoring connection. Vonte Brackett added a 4-yard scoring run as Hoover built a 34-6 lead by intermission.
    Jackson, who finished with six catches for 160 yards, snagged his second TD reception on a 16-yard pass late in the third period and Jacquez Allen scored on a 9-yard run with 9:31 left to play to make it 48-6.
    McGill-Toolen scored twice in the final 6:06 with Khalil Nettles racing 14 yards for a TD and Shelton Layman connecting with Turner McLaughlin for a 75-yard touchdown pass.
     Hoover finished with 26 first downs, 281 yards passing, 230 rushing and 511 total yards.
     Pickens finished with two catches for 61 yards and two scores. McCammon also had 106 yards rushing on 13 carries and Brackett had 59 on 10 attempts.  Noah Williams also had a 48-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter.
     Layman finished 20-of-32 passing for 210 yards and one TD for the Jackets, who totaled 326 yards and 18 first downs on the night. McLaughlin had four catches for 105 yards and Carlos Evans grabbed four receptions for 32 yards.
    Hoover’s defense was led Myles Spurling with nine tackles, Isaiah Hubbard and Greg Russell with eight each, Adrian Hill with seven and Devon Scott with six, including three for 24 yards in losses. McGill-Toolen’s Chris Hites had 13 tackles and Korian Wilson had 11 to lead the Jackets.
    The Bucs previous state titles came in 2016, 2014,  2013, 2012, 2009, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 1977 and a co-championship in 1982.  McGill-Toolen has reached the 7A finals three years in a row with a state crown in 2015 and runner-up finishes in 2016 and 2017.
    The Super 7 State Championships continue Thursday with Class 3A, 1A and 5A championships at 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 7 p.m., respectively. Randolph County (13-1) and Hillcrest-Evergreen kick off the action in the 3A finals.  All games will be televised lived over the Raycom Media Network of stations across the state. For details, go to www.pathtotheplayoffs.com. The NFHS Network will live-stream the Raycom production over its subscriber-based network, and the games will also be live-streamed on You Tube.